America’s Abandonment of Syria
May 31, 2023
By Luke Mogelson
By the time Turkey invaded northern Syria, in October, the Ain Issa refugee camp—twenty miles south of the Turkish border—resembled a small city. In recent years, some fourteen thousand people had moved there, displaced by ISIS, Russian and American air strikes, or the repressive regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The camp had evolved from a few tents in a muddy field into a sprawling grid complete with shops, cafeterias, falafel stands, schools, clinics, mosques, a full-time administration, and offices of more than two dozen local and international N.G.O.s. As news spread of the Turkish offensive, Nashat Khairi, a camp mukhtar, or selected representative, urged the roughly thirty families in his section to remain calm. A fruit vender before the war, Khairi had fled his village, in the eastern province of Deir Ezzour, with his wife and seven children, after ISIS captured it, in 2014. They reached Ain Issa three years later. Since then, the camp had come to feel like home. Khairi knew everyone in his section, oversaw the distribution of food rations, registered every birth, and seldom missed a wedding or a funeral. His children received an education and had access to health care. His wife earned a salary as a cleaner. They never went hungry. In cold weather, the camp provided kerosene for their stove, and during the summer they kept their tent cool with a fan powered by a generator. Outside their entryway, Khairi tended a small garden, with neat rows of radishes and bell peppers.
This piece was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
Most important, they were safe. The camp stood on a strategic intersection of the M4 highway, which traverses Syria from the Mediterranean Sea to its border with Iraq. The town of Ain Issa, less than a mile away, was the headquarters of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led army that had vanquished ISIS in northern and eastern Syria. Also nearby were two large U.S. military bases, which housed hundreds of American troops, contractors, and Foreign Service workers, who had supported the S.D.F. throughout its anti-ISIS campaign. One of the bases, at the former Lafarge Cement Factory, served as the joint-operations center for Kurdish and American commanders.
Khairi assured his fellow-refugees that someone surely had a plan to protect them. A fenced-off part of the camp held more than eight hundred wives and children of killed or captured ISIS militants: if nothing else, Khairi reasoned, the U.S. forces down the road would never let so many high-value detainees escape.
As the Turkish forces approached, however, an alarming development inside the camp deepened the communal panic. Without informing anyone, the management staff, armed guards, and aid workers had all disappeared.
In town, meanwhile, about fifteen hundred S.D.F. members had been frantically organizing a defense. One of the commanders was a twenty-eight-year-old Kurd from Aleppo Province who went by the nom de guerre Brousque—Lightning, in Kurdish. Brousque had been fighting ISIS alongside American troops for six years; his four siblings, including his twenty-one-year-old sister, also served in the S.D.F. In 2017, when the S.D.F. conducted a gruelling urban assault on Raqqa, ISIS’s global capital, U.S. Special Forces provided Brousque and other Kurdish commanders with tactical guidance while keeping a safe distance from the combat. Two months into the battle, an S.D.F. fighter a few yards in front of Brousque stepped on a mine and was killed, as was a fighter behind them. The blast knocked Brousque unconscious. He woke up in a hospital, blind, his chest, neck, and face burned and lacerated by shrapnel. By the time he recovered and regained his vision, at the end of 2017, ISIS had been defeated in Raqqa. Brousque was deployed to Tell Abyad, in the far north, where he was assigned five hundred fighters to secure a fifty-mile stretch of the border with Turkey.
Tensions on the border were already high. The S.D.F. had grown out of the P.K.K., a Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey that had waged a decades-long insurgency. The U.S. military’s collaboration with the S.D.F. enraged Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “A country we call an ally is insisting on forming a terror army on our border,” Erdoğan declared, shortly after Brousque arrived in Tell Abyad. “Our mission is to strangle it before it is even born.” Turkey had twice carried out major cross-border operations to seize Kurdish towns and cities in Syria, and further attacks seemed inevitable.
Then, last August, the U.S. brokered a deal between Turkey and the S.D.F. A demilitarized buffer zone along the Syrian side of the border required Brousque to dismantle all his fortifications, seal a tunnel system that his fighters had constructed, pull out of Tell Abyad, and move ten miles deeper into S.D.F. territory. In exchange, Erdoğan pledged not to invade. Brousque was skeptical of this promise, but he had faith in the Americans, who, according to the agreement, would act as guarantors. “We’d become good friends,” he told me, during a visit I made to Syria this winter. “I assumed that the advice they were giving us was in our interest.”
After the S.D.F. withdrew from the border, Turkish and American forces began conducting patrols and aerial surveillance together. Though no Kurds crossed into Turkey, Erdoğan soon dismissed the buffer zone as inadequate, and insisted on expanding it. In September, before the United Nations General Assembly, in New York, he announced his intention to annex more than five thousand square miles of Kurdish land, creating a “peace corridor” where two million Syrian refugees living in Turkey could be resettled. The refugees would be overwhelmingly Arab and from other parts of Syria. The southern edge of the corridor would encompass Ain Issa, Khairi’s refugee camp, and the Lafarge Cement Factory. International observers denounced the scheme as a flagrant attempt at demographic engineering that was certain to produce conflict and humanitarian disaster.
Two weeks later, the White House issued a press release stating that President Donald Trump and Erdoğan had spoken on the phone. While the details of the conversation have not been made public, it was a triumph for Erdoğan. “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into northern Syria,” the press release explained, adding that American troops “will no longer be in the immediate area.”
After the U.S. vacated the buffer zone, Turkish jets, drones, and artillery pummelled Tell Abyad and other border cities. The S.D.F., which has no air assets, petitioned the U.S. to impose a no-fly zone, but the Americans refused. Turkey’s ground forces consisted mostly of Syrian Arab mercenaries, many of whom had previously belonged to jihadist groups with a profound animosity toward the Kurds. As these militias pushed south, in armored vehicles, nearly two hundred thousand civilians fled from their path. Reports of war crimes, such as summary executions, followed the advance. Later, the senior American diplomat in Syria, William V. Roeback, wrote an internal memo lamenting that U.S. personnel had “stood by and watched” an “intention-laced effort at ethnic cleansing.”
On October 12th, a Turkish-backed militia reached the M4, where it intercepted an S.U.V. carrying Hevrin Khalaf, a prominent female Kurdish politician. She was beaten to death. Videos posted on Twitter show the militants murdering a second unarmed passenger as well. “Another fleeing pig has been liquidated,” one of the assailants proclaims.
The next day, Turkish forces in the open desert north of the highway began shelling Ain Issa, where Brousque was told to hold the line.
“The only thing between us was the camp,” he recalled.
In Nashat Khairi’s section, a troubling rumor had begun to circulate. The Kurds were said to have turned in desperation to the Assad regime, which was now sending reinforcements to Ain Issa. For many of the refugees, who’d come to the camp seeking asylum from the regime, this was as distressing as the Turkish offensive. Still, most people were reluctant to leave without their I.D.s, which were locked in the camp’s administrative offices.
As the sound of shelling and machine-gun fire neared, another danger materialized. The ISIS-affiliated detainees had somehow got out. The S.D.F. later blamed the breach on a riot provoked by Turkish air strikes. But I met multiple witnesses who claimed to have seen S.D.F. fighters arrive in a pickup and release the detainees. This seems plausible. Much of the Western criticism of the Turkish invasion focussed on the possibility that tens of thousands of ISIS militants and relatives might escape Kurdish custody. The S.D.F., realizing that the world cared more about the spectre of terrorists on the loose than about the killing of Kurds, promoted false accounts about Kurdish prison guards being sent to the Turkish border. Although these stories were untrue, an S.D.F. spokesman told me, they “made the international community pay attention.”
From Ain Issa, most of the detainees ran north, toward the Turks. Others stayed in the camp, infiltrating the regular population and adding to its paranoia and confusion. Several people told me that some of the fleeing ISIS wives cried out, “The night is coming!”
Not long after this, a convoy of armored vehicles flying American flags approached on the highway, from the Lafarge Cement Factory. When the convoy stopped in front of the camp, relief washed over Khairi. “We were so happy,” he remembered. “We thought they were coming to save us.” Khairi told his children that everything was going to be O.K. Then the convoy started moving again.
Khairi and the other refugees did not know that Trump had ordered an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Syria, and that the convoy now receding out of sight was headed for Iraq. But they understood that it wasn’t coming back. “Everyone went crazy,” Khairi said. “It was total anarchy.” People swarmed the administrative offices, shattering the windows, breaking down the doors, and lighting them on fire. Fighting persisted between the Turks and the S.D.F., and at some point Khairi’s eight-year-old niece, Amal, was struck by a stray bullet. Her older brother, Ali Mohammad, took her to the hospital in town. The incident aggravated the hysteria, and soon nearly everyone poured out through the camp’s main gate. Unlike the detainees, most of the refugees went south—some in cars, others on foot—unsure where they were going or what they would do. When Ali Mohammad returned to the camp with Amal, she was dead.
Khairi and his relatives stayed to bury her. In a clearing outside a mosque, they dug a grave and marked it with a stone on either end. The sun was setting. No one had eaten in several days. Khairi set out to scavenge for food. It looked as if a tornado had descended on the camp. He marvelled at how quickly everything had changed.
The next day, he hired a truck. “It was very difficult for me to leave,” he told me. “It was the same as when we left our village, in Deir Ezzour.” As the truck headed south—in the same direction from which, five years earlier, they had fled—Khairi and his family found themselves, once again, homeless and running from the war.
The departing Americans, after their brief pause outside the camp, proceeded east on the M4, through the middle of the battle, with Turkish forces on their left and the S.D.F. on their right. Both sides stopped fighting to let them pass, then resumed.
In the end, Brousque and the S.D.F. held on to Ain Issa, preventing the Turks from crossing the highway. It took the Americans three days to transport all their equipment and heavy weaponry out of Syria. Locals hurled rocks at them and called them traitors. After the Lafarge Cement Factory was abandoned, two American F-15s launched missiles at it. A U.S. Army spokesman explained that the purpose of the strike was “to reduce the facility’s military usefulness”—a stunning conclusion to what had arguably been America’s most successful military partnership in the post-9/11 era.
That partnership had begun in 2014, when ISIS stormed across northern Syria and the only meaningful armed resistance it encountered was a small band of Kurdish men and women who called themselves the People’s Protection Units, or Y.P.G. (The Syrian government had pulled most of its troops out of the region two years earlier, to quell uprisings elsewhere in the country.) Thousands of ISIS militants eventually besieged Kobani, the home town of the Y.P.G.’s commander, Ferhat Abdi Sahin, better known as Mazloum. A massacre appeared at hand. When I met Mazloum, in February, he recalled telling his fighters that under no circumstances were they to let ISIS advance beyond the street where he grew up. ISIS captured his house twice, and, according to Mazloum, both times the Y.P.G. took it back. By then, the U.S. had begun providing air support to the embattled Kurds; Mazloum said that American commanders advised him to surrender Kobani, and offered to cover his retreat. He refused. When ISIS seized his house a third time, he radioed its coördinates to the Americans and asked them to destroy it. “That was when the momentum changed,” Mazloum said. “After they bombed my house, we retook the neighborhood, and from there we kept advancing.” The Kurds eventually pushed ISIS out of Kobani, at which point the U.S. proposed to continue backing them from the air, as long as they pursued ISIS on the ground.
This must have been a strange moment for Mazloum, because the U.S. had once considered him a terrorist. He was born in 1967, shortly after the creation of the Syrian Arab Republic, which institutionalized the repression of Kurds. At the age of thirteen, he was imprisoned for reading a book in Kurdish, and as a student at Aleppo University he was arrested four times, for “political activities.” Meanwhile, in Turkey, whose government had enacted severe anti-Kurd policies of its own, the P.K.K. had launched a guerrilla war against the state. The group’s founder, Abdullah Ocalan, was forced to flee to Syria, where Mazloum’s father, a physician, befriended him. Some Turks now refer to Mazloum, derisively, as Ocalan’s “spiritual son.”
After graduating with a degree in architecture, Mazloum joined the P.K.K. He rose through its ranks during the eighties and nineties, while the group carried out kidnappings, assassinations, bombings, and suicide attacks in Turkey. The U.S. officially designated the P.K.K. a terrorist organization in 1997, and a year and a half later the C.I.A. helped Turkey capture Ocalan. He was imprisoned on a small island in the Sea of Marmara, where he remains today.
In 2011, at the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, Mazloum founded the Y.P.G. as a Syrian branch of the P.K.K. Three years later, when American officials offered to support the Y.P.G., they insisted that it break ties with its parent group. Mazloum says that his organization is not connected to the P.K.K. That is preposterous; what is debatable is the nature of the connection. As the Y.P.G. recaptured more territory from ISIS, it absorbed tens of thousands of non-Kurdish fighters—Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, and Turkmen—and, in 2015, it rebranded itself as the Syrian Democratic Forces. Recruits were still indoctrinated in Ocalan’s anti-Turkish ideology, however, and P.K.K. leaders quietly installed themselves in Syria, consolidating a shadow authority in both the S.D.F. and the emerging bureaucracy responsible for liberated areas. This bureaucracy—the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria—now governs about a third of the country, garnering considerable revenue, from taxes and trade, which, many experts believe, directly finances the P.K.K.
For the Americans, the S.D.F.’s proficiency against ISIS eclipsed concerns about antagonizing Turkey, a NATO ally. As the war against ISIS progressed, the Kurds, despite their fidelity to a designated terrorist organization, developed an extraordinarily copacetic relationship with U.S. troops and personnel. At the command level, this symbiosis seems to have been largely thanks to General Mazloum, whose competence and reliability permitted American officials to overlook his political associations. Brett McGurk, a former special Presidential envoy for the coalition fighting ISIS, told me, “Mazloum proved himself to be incredibly effective militarily—and diplomatically, bringing tens of thousands of Arabs into the force. The results spoke for themselves.” Notwithstanding a lifelong devotion to Kurdish rights, Mazloum was crucial in uniting the S.D.F.’s diverse non-Kurdish factions, especially rivalrous Arab tribes. “He’s pragmatic and subtle,” McGurk said. “He became a trusted interlocutor.”
Today, Mazloum commands more than a hundred thousand fighters, fewer than half of whom are Kurds. His astonishing trajectory, from the leader of a fledgling militia to the general of a multiethnic army controlling a large swath of Syria, has endowed him with an almost mythical stature. “People see him as a kind of prophet,” a Kurdish friend of mine said. Some Americans express a similar awe. “Mazloum is the George Washington of the Kurds,” a U.S. Army major told me.
Erdoğan, for his part, has issued a warrant for Mazloum’s arrest through Interpol, and placed a bounty on his head. For my meeting with General Mazloum, I was instructed to show up at an S.D.F. base; I was then escorted to a remote compound on a hill overlooking wetlands. Guards paced the terraces of a luxurious residence with patios and an expansive swimming pool—the Hollywood version of a narco mansion, except that everyone was nice. Mazloum, the only person on the property in uniform, received me in a small, austere room with a few couches and coffee tables. Soft-spoken and clean-shaven, with graying black hair and an open face, he radiated the guileless enthusiasm of an idealist and the imperturbability of a veteran commander.
It is a sign of the insular and secretive culture of the P.K.K. that, until last year, few people outside Syria had ever heard of Mazloum. Throughout the Raqqa offensive, he avoided the press and remained sequestered with his American counterparts inside the Lafarge Cement Factory. His first public appearance came last March, after the S.D.F. captured Deir Ezzour, ISIS’s last redoubt in Syria, erasing from the map a caliphate that once encompassed more than thirty thousand square miles. At a choreographed ceremony, Mazloum briefly addressed international media outlets that had covered the battle. When we spoke, he explained to me that it would have been inappropriate for a subordinate of his to have declared such a momentous victory. But his decision to step into the spotlight was also tactical: in addition to declaring victory, he implored the U.S. not to abandon Syria prematurely. Warning that ISIS and Al Qaeda still posed a danger to the “whole world,” he asked for continued military support, “in order to begin a new phase in the fight against terrorism.”
His worry was understandable. Three months earlier, in December, 2018, while the S.D.F. was still engaged in brutal daily combat in Deir Ezzour, Trump had declared, on Twitter, “We have won against ISIS.” Praising the “soldiers who have been killed fighting for our country,” he directed the Pentagon to withdraw all its forces from Syria within thirty days. (Two U.S. service members had been killed in Syria, compared with more than ten thousand men and women in the S.D.F.) Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned in protest, as did Brett McGurk. After Republican senators joined the backlash, Trump relented on his timetable. But he never rescinded his order to withdraw.
When I asked Mazloum if U.S. military and civilian leaders had begun preparing him for their departure after Trump’s announcement, he said absolutely not. “Basically, they told us it wasn’t going to happen,” Mazloum said. The first official warning he received to the contrary came in October, when the ranking U.S. general for the Middle East called to inform him—on the same day the rest of the world found out—that a Turkish incursion was imminent and that the U.S. would do nothing to impede it. (A U.S. Army spokesman said, “We decline specific comment on prior conversations between senior leaders.”)
The disaster that subsequently befell northern Syria has been widely attributed to Trump’s capitulation to Erdoğan, which many people view as a gross betrayal of the Kurds. Senator Mitt Romney, raising the prospect of a congressional investigation into Trump’s decision, called it “a bloodstain on the annals of American history.” Such criticism hinges on the seemingly self-evident notion that the Kurds, after defeating ISIS at great cost, had earned a debt of loyalty from the U.S. Certainly, this was Mazloum’s understanding. Trump, however, never suggested that it was his understanding. Rather, it appears that U.S. commanders and diplomats made commitments that contradicted his explicit statements—imparting a false sense of security to the Kurds that ultimately harmed them. Mazloum told me that last summer, when he agreed to pull back his forces from the Turkish border, the Americans on the ground in Syria assured him, “As long as we’re here, Turkey will not attack you.”
By all accounts, these Americans genuinely believed in their partnership with the Kurds and were anguished by the way it ended. The question is whether they did the Kurds a disservice by not adequately explaining to them that the collective will of U.S. institutions could be instantly abrogated by a Presidential tweet—and that the posting of such a tweet was likely. In Syria, perhaps more than anywhere else, the unprecedented friction between the White House and its foreign-policy apparatus is on stark display. Almost every Kurd I met, including Mazloum, distinguished between the U.S. military and its Commander-in-Chief. “After all the fighting we did together, we had lots of trust in the Americans,” Mazloum said. “We never imagined everything could change in just two days.” After a pause, he qualified the criticism: “We know this was a political decision. We still have confidence in our American brothers-in-arms.”
In 2015, when Bashar al-Assad appeared to be losing his grip on the country, Vladimir Putin came to his aid. A prodigious Russian air campaign turned the tide of the civil war. In addition to enabling regime atrocities, Russia has killed thousands of Syrian civilians. Russian security contractors have also committed horrific crimes. A 2017 video showed Russians murdering a Syrian with a sledgehammer, then decapitating him and lighting his corpse on fire. However problematic the U.S. intervention in Syria has been, it would be specious to equate Russian and American conduct in the country.
Assad and the Russians have made it clear that their long-term goal is the return of “total state control” in Syria, including in the territory captured from ISIS by the S.D.F. Nevertheless, the day before Turkey attacked Brousque’s forces in Ain Issa and U.S. troops began leaving the Lafarge Cement Factory, Mazloum met with representatives from Russia and the Assad regime. The next afternoon, government military units returned to parts of northern Syria for the first time in seven years. In an editorial in Foreign Policy, Mazloum described his choice as one between “painful compromises” and “the genocide of our people.”
During the next week, a cascade of events upended the strategic balance in Syria and, by extension, throughout the Middle East. Putin invited Erdoğan to Sochi, where the two leaders signed a treaty that halted the Turkish offensive while implicitly ceding to Turkey the land it had already taken—nearly a thousand square miles. (An earlier ceasefire, negotiated by Vice-President Mike Pence, had been neither respected by Turkey nor enforced by the U.S.) Mazloum agreed to relinquish his remaining border positions, and Russia replaced the U.S. as the neutral mediator of the buffer zone. Russian troops also joined regime forces on the S.D.F.’s new front line along the territory annexed by Turkey. Near Ain Issa, Russian soldiers commandeered the largest U.S. airbase in Syria. Russian state television broadcast video footage of American medical supplies, empty bunkhouses, and shipping containers marked “PROPERTY OF U.S. ARMY.”
When I visited Ain Issa, in February, Russian military vehicles entered and exited a former U.S. outpost on the edge of town. A large Russian flag waved on the roof of a former U.S. guard tower. It was visible from the building where I met with Brousque, who now coördinates with Russian soldiers instead of with U.S. Special Forces. It wasn’t the same, Brousque said: “We fought alongside the Americans. They ate with us. They laughed and joked with us. We had the feeling that we belonged to the same team. It’s not like that with the Russians.” Brousque recalled a celebration at the end of a training exercise, during which American troops sang and danced to traditional Kurdish music with their S.D.F. comrades. Smiling at the memory, he said, “The Russians would never do that.”
Earthen berms and trenches lined the north side of the M4. A few hundred feet beyond them were the Turkish-backed militias. Before October, downtown Ain Issa had been a bustling souk. Now it was deserted. Regime soldiers walked by shuttered stores, garages, barbershops, and restaurants. When I introduced myself and tried to ask them questions, they nervously hurried off. They wore mismatched uniforms and tattered sneakers, and several of them looked underfed. Of the handful of soldiers I managed to interview, all but one had been conscripted. None was armed, and I later learned that the S.D.F. had prohibited them from carrying weapons in town.
The regime forces that Mazloum allowed back into Kurdish territory are restricted to the frontiers and pose little danger to the S.D.F. By stopping the Turkish offensive, securing Russian protection, and limiting the deployment of regime troops, Mazloum prevented northern Syria from descending into chaos. But this emergency diplomacy grants only a temporary reprieve. The longer the Kurds must contend with an existential threat from Turkey in the north, the less able they will be to defend their Arab satellites in the south—Deir Ezzour and Raqqa—from Russia and Assad. This secondary effect of the U.S. withdrawal has the potential to become yet another catastrophe, for yet another population.
To the extent that Trump has articulated a coherent policy in Syria, it reflects his view that the country is irredeemably doomed and therefore no longer our concern. “Syria was lost long ago,” he said last year. “We’re talking about sand and death.” Trump is not the first President to cite the scale and the complexity of the Syrian war as a justification for American inconstancy. In 2013, when the regime killed more than a thousand civilians with sarin gas, Barack Obama, leery of being drawn into the conflict, backed away from punitive strikes, despite having declared a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. The regime, uninhibited by a fear of American repercussions, has since conducted additional gas attacks and wantonly slaughtered tens of thousands of its citizens by other means. One could argue that Obama’s painstakingly considered inaction enabled more violence and misery than any of Trump’s carelessly impulsive actions. At the same time, Trump’s repudiation of American responsibility to Syria is harder to rationalize, given that during his time in office the U.S., in its zeal to exterminate ISIS, has reduced parts of the country to wasteland. Nowhere is this more true than in the city of Raqqa.
The truck that Nashat Khairi hired to take his family away from Ain Issa stopped ten miles north of Raqqa. Khairi, his wife, and their seven children unloaded their belongings on the roadside: mattresses, blankets, pots and pans, their fan and stove. All around them, thousands of refugees from the camp had pitched tents in empty fields, amid grazing livestock. Khairi told his family that they would not be staying there. After a night under the stars, he hitched a ride to Raqqa to look for someplace with a roof.
He discovered a city whose utter decimation might be unique in this century. As a candidate, Trump had vowed to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS, and, almost as soon as he entered the Oval Office, Raqqa afforded him the opportunity. By the summer of 2017, the S.D.F. had encircled the city, which ISIS militants prepared to defend with suicide bombers, an elaborate tunnel system, and ubiquitous I.E.D.s. Because the S.D.F. lacked heavy weaponry and armored vehicles, the offensive relied on U.S. air strikes. For four months, the U.S. deployed thousands of munitions, ranging from laser-guided Hellfire missiles to one-ton unguided bombs. U.S. artillery battalions complemented the barrage with more than thirty thousand shells. An adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff later told the Marine Corps Times, “Every minute of every hour, we were putting some kind of fire on ISIS in Raqqa.” I was shocked, while covering the battle, by what seemed to be a strategy of physical annihilation applied against a city that still harbored a significant civilian population. One front-line S.D.F. commander told me that he called in U.S. air strikes on solitary gunmen.
When the last ISIS holdouts surrendered, the layout of the city was unrecognizable. Months of labor were required just to uncover the streets. The effort was overseen by the Raqqa Civil Council, a municipal authority established by the Kurds which currently operates under the Autonomous Administration. The U.S. supplied excavators and paid the salaries of more than six hundred local workers. Large rig-mounted jackhammers smashed the vast mountains of concrete into manageable pieces, which were then used to fill in craters, seal ISIS tunnels, and reinforce levees on the Euphrates River. Smaller slabs were pulverized and repurposed as cement. Thousands of bodies were extracted, as were tens of thousands of mines. Once the main arteries were passable, water stations and basic plumbing were installed. People started moving back.
“It changed from a dead city to a city with a pulse,” Ibrahim Ibn Khalil, the former director of the Civil Council’s reconstruction committee, told me this winter. We met in a small café in downtown Raqqa, near the central roundabout where ISIS once performed public beheadings and crucifixions. Ibn Khalil, in a wheelchair, held a hookah pipe in his left hand and a cappuccino in his right. In January, 2018, an assassin had entered his house and shot him six times in the chest; ISIS claimed responsibility. Doctors saved Ibn Khalil’s life, but three bullets remain lodged in his back, and no hospital in Syria is equipped to take them out. Ibn Khalil told me that the American officials who had encouraged the development of the Civil Council had promised to secure him a visa so that he could undergo surgery in the U.S. But they never followed through. “It’s very disappointing for me,” he said. “This happened because I was working with the Americans.”
His personal disappointment echoes a larger one. Because the U.N. respects the sovereignty of the Syrian regime, and the regime does not authorize aid delivery to areas controlled by the S.D.F., the U.S. initially assumed the financial burden for Raqqa’s recovery. But, seven months after Ibn Khalil was shot, Trump suspended the Syria budgets of the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development. “Let the other people take care of it now,” he had said. “We’re going to get back to our country, where we belong.” Although Gulf states and European nations made up for the shortfall, which totalled around two hundred and thirty million dollars—about a quarter of what’s been raised to repair Notre-Dame, in Paris—the disruption hampered progress, and many locals lost their jobs. Five months later, when Trump first threatened to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, the Americans advising Ibn Khalil’s team—public-health, water-sanitation, and demining experts—were evacuated from the country. Those who eventually returned were confined to U.S. military bases far from Raqqa, and in October they left Syria for good. Rubble, bombs, and bodies still litter the city—unexploded ordnance continues to kill and maim people every week, typically children—and no government has offered any support for the monumental undertaking of fixing damaged buildings and erecting new ones. In Ibn Khalil’s opinion, “The world has betrayed the people of Raqqa.”
The comprehensiveness of the destruction can be visually disorienting. It’s as if the cumulative energy of the American bombardment had scrambled the normal order of things, leaving behind an Escher-like reality to which the mind needs time to adjust. Concrete staircases dangle vertically from twisted rebar; cars lie upside down; roofs jut at weird angles; slabs of concrete undulate like rumpled cloth; trees cower from old blasts. On every surface, projectiles have gouged holes of different shapes and sizes; entire blocks are sheared off at the top. Some buildings appear to defy physics, frozen mid-fall. Others have been trucked away, the only trace of them a square of dirt.
And yet, remarkably, the obliterated city abounds with activity. Because most of Raqqa was wrecked from above, the ground levels of taller structures often survived more or less intact. Many streets are lined with shops and restaurants that have reopened under multiple gutted floors. Less obvious is where everybody lives. For several days, I couldn’t figure it out. Then one evening, while we were driving around, my translator—a friend from Iraq who’d never been to Raqqa before—said, “Look at all the people.” Although solar-powered L.E.D. lamps illuminate a few main boulevards, and commercial enterprises run diesel generators, Raqqa is eerily dark at night. But now I saw what he was talking about: scattered throughout the city, dim points of light.
One of these belonged to Nashat Khairi. Three days after his family left Ain Issa, he found a cinder-block room on Raqqa’s northern outskirts, near train tracks whose rails had been removed by scavengers, and rusty freight cars converted into shelters. The room was too small for his seven children, so Khairi installed the family’s tent outside, and linked the two entrances with a tarp, thereby doubling the square footage. Between the stakes, he planted another garden with radishes and bell peppers. “This tent is dear to my heart,” he told me when I visited.
As we discussed what had happened in October, Khairi kept referring to a compact agenda that he kept in his pocket. The agenda, so old and weathered that most of its pages had detached, contained copious notes from his years as a mukhtar at the Ain Issa camp: the names, ages, and phone numbers of everyone in his section; the rations to which each family was entitled; the locations of tents with infants needing formula; dates of marriages and deaths. Between the pages were battered business cards—contact information for N.G.O.s and aid workers who had long since quit the region. Picking up a card that had fallen out, Khairi told me it belonged to a doctor who used to perform circumcisions for newborns in the camp. He carefully returned the card to its place.
Khairi had found a job helping a Raqqa merchant sell secondhand blankets, and earned around three dollars a week. (I had first met him, by chance, while he was unfolding his wares on the sidewalk one morning.) Although he often had to choose between food and kerosene—winter temperatures frequently dropped below freezing—he considered himself lucky. Thousands of refugees who had fled Ain Issa were still living in the fields north of Raqqa. The former manager of the camp told me that there is no plan to help them. When my translator and I visited the makeshift settlement, a crowd of women swarmed our car, shouting, “We’re dying of hunger!” and “Why isn’t anyone coming?” We had to drive away when they tried to force open our doors. A villager who lived nearby later told me, “They don’t even have water. Their husbands are in Raqqa looking for work.” He added, “When it rains, these fields will all be flooded.”
The reason none of these people had moved into Raqqa was that the city was already full. Around a hundred thousand people are thought to live there. In addition to former residents returning home, and people fleeing the Turkish invasion, the city has been inundated with Syrians displaced by the regime—from Aleppo, Hama, Deir Ezzour, and elsewhere. Every habitable niche has been claimed. After a week or so, I learned to identify signs of human life within the ruins: drying laundry, bricked-up holes, plastic-covered windows, and small gray satellite dishes affixed to half-collapsing walls. (The Civil Council sells generator-powered electricity for about two dollars a week, and everyone, no matter how destitute, seemed to have a television with several hundred channels.) Sometimes tower complexes were so thoroughly damaged that only a single apartment retained a modicum of structural integrity. One day, I noticed a man sweeping debris from the roof of a three-story building whose top and bottom floors had no exterior walls; he lived in the middle. When he invited me inside, I found the living room impeccably restored, with plush carpets and decorative plaster molding. A polished wood-and-glass display cabinet had survived the battle; on its shelves, porcelain figurines and delicate teacups were arranged on lace doilies.
Most people in Raqqa live in far more squalid and hazardous conditions. Large families are often crowded into one or two rooms with bowed ceilings and bulging walls—masses of blasted concrete literally pressing in on them. Given the state of these apartments, I was surprised to discover that there are few squatters in Raqqa. Almost everyone I met, including Khairi, paid rent.
At one of the dozens of real-estate offices downtown, Hassan Yassin, a middle-aged agent wearing a kaffiyeh and traditional tribal robes, told me, “We’ve never seen such a high demand.” Yassin said that property owners can usually be tracked down, and if they are dead, imprisoned, or abroad, relatives suffice. Prices range from about ten dollars a month, in the suburbs, to as much as thirty dollars a month in the popular Al Firdous neighborhood. (Al Firdous is no less damaged than anywhere else, but it boasts the Electric Park of Raqqa, whose Ferris wheel and bumper cars withstood two air strikes, and Rashid Stadium. A former ISIS torture center, the stadium has a synthetic track that people now jog around.) Yassin waved a stack of papers—his backlog of would-be tenants seeking accommodation. “It’s like that everywhere in Raqqa,” he said.
During the day, the city resonates with the din of banging hammers, power tools, and machinery. Wood shops fabricate furniture; boom trucks and bulldozers clog the roads; venders hawk salvaged brick, tile, metal, and marble. But almost none of this industry is geared toward creating new structures. At a high school flattened by an air strike, a crew of workers contracted by the Civil Council explained their work to me. As backhoes clawed through heaps of concrete, raking out gnarled rebar, laborers fed the steel rods through a straightening machine. Earthmovers then exhumed the foundation, so that the school could be resurrected on its original footprint. This final step, however, was merely theoretical: no building had occurred on any of the sites the crew had prepared.
The U.S. and its allies have refused to fund construction projects in Syria as long as Assad remains in power. “It’s become a collective consensus among donors that we will not do reconstruction in Syria,” a senior humanitarian officer told me. “ ‘Reconstruction’ is a dirty word.” The ostensible reason for withholding such assistance is to incentivize the resolution of a U.N.-sponsored peace process. But the process has been stalled for years, and few people expect it to succeed. The Western aversion to durable investment in Syria more likely arises from a broad but unspoken recognition that Assad is winning the war. “It’s political,” the humanitarian officer said. “We don’t want to do anything that will eventually benefit the regime.”
Even though the State Department and U.S.A.I.D. no longer have personnel in Syria, they still determine how the majority of foreign funding is spent there. The U.S. government distinguishes between “stabilization” and “reconstruction,” allowing the former and proscribing the latter. Stabilization projects are subject to guidelines that forbid, among other things, the building of load-bearing walls. In practical terms, this means that, if a school was minimally damaged by an American air strike, the U.S. can finance basic refurbishments, such as replacing doorframes or applying new paint. But if the school was destroyed—as the vast majority of structures in Raqqa were—the U.S., as a matter of policy, cannot replace it. The Europeans and the Gulf states generally follow the same rule.
For even these limited interventions, only public structures are eligible. Since the Second World War, the U.S. has rarely paid directly for the reconstruction of private homes in any conflict; the crucial difference in Syria is the absence of other actors to provide such aid. In Iraq, the U.N. has rebuilt more than twenty-five thousand residences that were destroyed during the war against ISIS, and the World Bank is funding major infrastructure projects. In Raqqa, deferring to the regime, neither institution has done anything.
Yassin told me that, among the buildings where he had placed renters, “we estimate that at least seventy per cent of them will have to be torn down—they’re not safe.” I asked what will happen to their occupants if that happens. “They’ll have to go somewhere else,” he said.
In Raqqa, you can’t walk down the street without encountering people whose lives have been shattered by American arms. An investigation by Amnesty International found that the U.S.-led coalition killed at least sixteen hundred civilians in the city; locals say that the actual toll is much higher. Although American officials like to claim that the U.S. “liberated” Raqqa, nobody I met there felt liberated.
One afternoon, in a neighborhood adjacent to Al Firdous, we passed a yellow taxi parked outside a building that looked as if it had been stepped on by a giant. A sheet hung over the doorway. When my translator asked if anyone was home, a middle-aged man with gray hair and a gray mustache emerged. His name was Mustafa al-Hamad. We followed him into a room with crumbling walls lined with blankets and pillows, where we were joined by his wife, Namat.
They were originally from Aleppo, where Hamad had managed a shoe store. In 2012, the revolution turned violent in their neighborhood, and they moved with their four children to Raqqa. The war had not yet reached Raqqa, and Namat’s family lived there. Hamad bought a taxi and began working as a driver. He and Namat had another daughter. After ISIS captured Raqqa, in 2014, they considered fleeing—but nowhere they could go was significantly safer. Two years later, the S.D.F. began its advance on the city, and ISIS, recognizing the need for human shields, prohibited civilians from leaving.
In 2017, as the S.D.F. approached Raqqa, the already ferocious deluge of munitions intensified. That July, a shell or an air strike killed Namat’s brother, Khalid. She and Hamad resolved to get out. The taxi could fit only them, their five children, and Khalid’s thirteen-year-old son, whom they had adopted. Hamad promised to return for Namat’s mother, sister, nieces, and nephews. They left at night, following a rutted dirt road through the wetlands on the edge of the Euphrates. Eventually, they arrived at a line of vehicles—other residents trying to escape the city—backed up from where the road disappeared into a marsh. ISIS militants had blown up a levee, flooding the way.
About a dozen men were helping people move their cars, one after another, across several hundred feet of water. “If we hear a plane, we have to go,” they told Hamad. The Americans, fearing that ISIS militants were sneaking out of Raqqa, had dropped leaflets threatening to bomb anyone attempting to ford the river.
When it was Hamad’s turn, he and his two teen-age sons got out and pushed. Namat and her daughters waded alongside them. The water rose to Namat’s chest; she held her infant above her head. They made it across, and the next day reached a town under the control of the S.D.F.
Hamad did not go back for Namat’s mother and sister—to do so would have been suicidal. Both women, along with four of Namat’s nieces and nephews, were later killed in an air strike. As soon as Raqqa was accessible, Hamad and Namat visited the site, hoping to recover their bodies. There was too much rubble.
The day after I met Hamad, he led me and my translator to the place where he had pushed his taxi across the marsh. The dirt road was still flooded, and looked exactly as he had described it. On the way back to the city, we stopped at a small scrap yard. In a wooden shack surrounded by rusty engine parts, shutters, gears, wheels, and other refuse, we found the young owner sitting on a crate, drinking tea with one of his suppliers. While I spoke to the owner about his business—there had been a brief boom, he said, but the city was soon picked over—the supplier regarded me suspiciously. He was missing several teeth, and cotton spilled from holes all over his dirty coat. He grew agitated as I continued asking questions, and finally interrupted me. “During the battle, a mortar killed my wife and three of my daughters,” he said. “Another one of my daughters lost her leg.”
The man, named Hussein Ahmad, invited me to his house, where I met his ten-year-old daughter, Fatma, who is now in a wheelchair. Fatma recalled cooking dinner with her mother and sisters when a shell tore through their kitchen. Rima was fifteen, Amira fourteen, and Waffa twelve. Ahmad said he had asked several N.G.O.s about getting a prosthesis for Fatma. He’d taped his phone number to the wall, in case someone showed up while he was out collecting metal.
Most civilians who were injured by U.S. artillery and air strikes were treated at the Raqqa Public Hospital. A former doctor from the hospital told me that by the end of the fighting only ten of his colleagues remained, the others having fled or died. Amputation became the default treatment for wounded limbs, the doctor said. One physician had performed so many amputations that ISIS accused him of deliberately impairing people. Infection and sepsis were common. Fatma said that, when she woke up in one of the wards, “they were cleaning my leg but I couldn’t feel anything—then it started to smell and they cut it.”
Because the hospital also treated ISIS militants, it was a frequent target of U.S. air strikes. (Toward the end of the offensive, it also became an ISIS fighting position.) When the current director of the hospital, Kassar Ali, took me inside the original facility, we had to scrabble through downed pipes and caved-in ceilings, the walls and floors scorched black by fire. Scattered everywhere were the remnants of medical supplies: white piles of cast plaster, contorted gurneys, smashed exam tables. Air strikes had destroyed all of the X-ray machines, CAT scanners, and MRI devices. Doctors Without Borders has financed the renovation of a new wing—which is currently the only public-health facility in Raqqa—but none of this essential equipment has been replaced. According to Ali, American commanders had visited the hospital on several occasions: “Each time, they took pictures, we had long meetings, and they promised support. But so far they’ve given us nothing.” Since October, even the visits have stopped. Reached by phone recently, Ali said that he is deeply worried about the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak in Raqqa. “We can take care of one or two patients, at most,” he explained. The hospital has two ventilators—eight were lost to air strikes.
If people in Raqqa knew the U.S.’s rationale for refusing to engage in any substantive reconstruction of their city—because it might end up in the hands of the regime—they would no doubt feel even more betrayed than they do now. Raqqa is an Arab city, and most of its residents, unlike the Kurds, are unwilling to accept any deal with the regime. While interviewing people in Raqqa, I often heard the phrase “the devil before Assad.” When General Mazloum made his accommodation with the regime, protests broke out in the city. Some Arabs, fearing the regime’s return, have since fled. Hamad and Namat told me that if the regime comes back they, too, will leave. After they escaped Raqqa, in 2017, their daughter Noor married and moved to Hama Province, in western Syria; six months later, she was killed, along with her husband and her in-laws, in an air strike by the regime or the Russians. Hamad and Namat’s anger aside, staying would be foolhardy: as natives of Aleppo, they risk meeting the same fate as the tens of thousands of Syrians whom the regime has disappeared since 2011. When their eldest son turned eighteen, he would be conscripted.
The partially demolished apartment where they now live once belonged to Namat’s mother. When they returned to Raqqa, Hamad and Namat spent ten days clearing out rubble and shoring up the walls. Hamad wired in electricity, and Namat planted vegetables in an empty lot outside. They even had a kitchen with a sink and running water. If they left this place, I asked, where would they go? Hamad reflected, then said, “Wherever the regime isn’t.”
Dread of the regime is even more acute for those who have worked, even in limited capacities, with the U.S. At the offices of Citizenship House, a local N.G.O. based in the Al Firdous neighborhood, I met half a dozen women who ran democracy-education workshops funded by the State Department and by European governments. One of them, Yamam Abdulghani, told me, “To the regime, we’re terrorists. They accuse us of applying a Western agenda and Western ideologies.” When I asked what punishment such activities might elicit, Abdulghani said, “Look at Caesar’s pictures.” In 2013, a former military-police photographer using the pseudonym Caesar divulged thousands of images of Syrian prisoners who had been tortured and executed in regime detention centers.
The workshops at Citizenship House are quintessential “stabilization” programs. In contrast to humanitarian operations—which are supposed to address immediate needs—such programs are designed to forestall the emergence of ISIS and other extremist movements; for this reason, the U.S. and its allies will fund them. But, in Raqqa, the absence of any U.S. protection against the regime—and of any U.S. investment in rebuilding—has created exactly the kinds of conditions in which radical groups like ISIS flourish. According to Abdulghani, a bellwether for such instability in Raqqa is the current situation of its women.
Women’s rights are central to the political philosophy of Abdullah Ocalan, and the S.D.F. and the Autonomous Administration vigorously promote gender equality. A billboard outside the Raqqa Civil Council declares, “With women at the forefront of the twenty-first century, we will end all violence against humanity.” Moreover, before ISIS, few women in Raqqa wore niqabs and veils. Yet Abdulghani was one of only two uncovered women I met in the city. The other was the Kurdish co-chair of the Civil Council. Abdulghani said that the prevalence of niqabs and veils could be attributed, in part, to the lingering influence of ISIS. But the U.S. withdrawal was a bigger factor. “Before October, some women had started to uncover,” she said. “Now it’s stopped. Women are afraid of what’s coming.”
Abdulghani, who, in 2016, smuggled herself out of Raqqa in a truckful of goats, said that people often harass her on the street, calling her a prostitute and warning that ISIS will soon be back. “Everyone is preparing to leave,” she said. “No one feels secure. No one can think about tomorrow.”
Two weeks after Trump ordered a full withdrawal of the thousand or so U.S. troops in Syria, he decided to send half of them back. They would not be defending their Kurdish allies against Turkey, or deterring the regime from encroaching on Raqqa. Instead, Trump said, “we are leaving soldiers to secure the oil.” Cryptically, he went on, “Maybe somebody else wants the oil, in which case they’ll have a hell of a fight.” The Pentagon has characterized the mission differently: the “somebody” it is concerned about is ISIS, and American troops are in Syria “for the oil” only insofar as safeguarding it deprives ISIS of a potential source of revenue.
Both of these explanations feel disingenuous. It’s true that ISIS persists around the S.D.F.-controlled oil fields of Deir Ezzour Province, where U.S. Special Forces continue to carry out counterterrorism raids. But Iran, which supports the Assad regime, is also active there. Nashat Khairi and his family, for instance, can’t return to their village in Deir Ezzour because it is occupied by an Iranian-backed militia. Until October, containing Iranian adventurism was a key U.S. priority in Syria, and Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach to Iran has been perhaps the most consistent feature of his foreign-policy agenda. Iranian operations in Syria are overseen by the Quds Force, which used to be commanded by Qassem Suleimani, the general who was assassinated in a drone strike in January. Trump later defended his decision to order the strike by saying that Suleimani had “viciously wounded and murdered thousands of U.S. troops.” A U.S. withdrawal from Deir Ezzour could entail surrendering U.S. bases to the Quds Force.
Another place in Syria where U.S. troops are currently stationed is also rich in oil—a Kurdish region called Jazira. But ISIS has no presence in Jazira, and there is little need to protect its oil. Most of the crude in both Jazira and Deir Ezzour is exported to the regime, which refines it and sells a portion back to the Kurds, as diesel and petroleum. Although the Kurds and the regime fundamentally oppose each other, they engage in this commerce because neither could subsist without it: international sanctions prevent the regime from buying sufficient oil on the global market, and the Kurds have no refineries of their own. Jazira is strategically valuable not because of its peculiar oil trade but because it is where the M4 crosses into northern Iraq—another Kurdish-governed territory. The border is a lifeline for Syrian Kurds, and also a bridge between two major spheres of U.S. influence. Russia is thus determined to control it. When I visited Jazira, this winter, U.S. and Russian patrols were confronting one another almost daily on the muddy roads that crisscross its barren hills.
Russia has long presented itself as a preferable alternative to U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, and Trump’s disengagement has galvanized Putin’s regional ambitions. The most arresting thing about the video showing the Russian takeover of the U.S. airbase near Ain Issa is not the Russian helicopter touching down on an American landing zone, or the Russian soldiers moving into American barracks; it is the Russian officer invoking timeworn American rhetoric. “We are here to deliver humanitarian and medical aid to civilians, and to provide them with peace and security,” he says.
The Kurds know that Russia, Iran, and the regime want the same thing Turkey wants: an end to their autonomy in Syria. This is why many Kurds, despite Trump’s oft-expressed indifference to their welfare, cling to the hope of a renewed alliance with the U.S. Nearly all the Kurdish officials I interviewed were so desperate to salvage what remained of the American commitment to Syria that they refused to speak on the record about the withdrawal. One S.D.F. commander told me that, even during the Turkish invasion, he and his peers refrained from criticizing the U.S. in the press. “We discussed it, and decided to say we felt ‘disappointed’ instead of ‘betrayed,’ ” he said. Trump’s opinion of the Kurds, however, seems to have only deteriorated since he abandoned them. In November, he hosted Erdoğan in the Oval Office, where the Turkish President reportedly produced an iPad and showed a video comparing General Mazloum to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder of ISIS. Afterward, Trump thanked Erdoğan and the Turkish military “for the job they’ve done” in Syria. He has also mused, “The Kurds, it’s very interesting—Turkey doesn’t like them, other people do.”
Were Trump to remove the remaining U.S. forces in Jazira and Deir Ezzour, the S.D.F. would have to make additional concessions to the regime in order to secure a bulwark against Turkey. This could include handing over Raqqa. But, even if the U.S. stays in Syria, and Turkey does not renew its offensive, the status quo appears unsustainable. Once Russia, Iran, and the regime have defeated the final pockets of the Arab opposition, they will almost certainly turn their attention to the Kurds. Arthur Quesnay, a political scientist at the Sorbonne, who recently co-authored a report on northern Syria, told me, “It may take a couple of years, but the regime will gradually return and recapture territory.” Quesnay believes that the fall of Raqqa and Deir Ezzour will be only the beginning. If the regime managed to take control of a few strategic sites, such as the border crossing in Jazira, it could starve the S.D.F. of resources, precipitating its collapse. In that case, Mazloum’s army would revert to what it was before his fateful introduction to the U.S., in 2014: a small Kurdish militia, surrounded by enemies.
All over northern Syria, the Kurds are preparing for this scenario by building an extensive network of tunnels. According to Mazloum, Trump promised him that he would never allow Erdoğan to attack Kobani. But Mazloum seems to have little confidence in the reassurance: I saw more tunnels in his home town than anywhere else. Twenty-five miles of paved road connects the former U.S. airbase near Ain Issa to Kobani, which abuts the Turkish border. The entire length of this route is lined with small blue tents, spaced around seventy feet apart, each standing beside a large mound of soil. When my translator and I pulled over and entered one of them, we found two teen-agers, covered in dirt, peering into a narrow shaft. A winch was suspended above the mouth of the shaft, and when the boys retracted its cable a man in a harness surfaced from the subterranean dark. They had been digging for three weeks straight. The tunnel, which parallels the road, was thirty feet underground.
While the Kurds are adjusting to the fact that the sky is no longer on their side, so are the area’s civilians. West of Ain Issa on the M4, where the front line with the Turks cuts across sweeping plains, a small Christian village called Tell Tawil sits on a low rise, conspicuous from a distance because of its abundant trees. In 2015, as ISIS neared Tell Tawil, the entire population fled. A year later, after the S.D.F. expelled ISIS, some people returned. When the Turks invaded, there was another exodus. One afternoon, as I accompanied an S.D.F. fighter through Tell Tawil’s deserted streets, he explained that Turkish-backed militias across the fields frequently shelled the village, despite the ceasefire, and Turkish drones sometimes targeted it with missiles. All the houses were empty, and the church was boarded up.
I was therefore surprised when we came upon two old men, sitting shoulder to shoulder, on a stoop in the sun. Their names were David Abraham and Khoshaba Samuel. Abraham, who is eighty-seven years old, wore a pin-striped blazer over a V-neck sweater and a collared shirt. He said that he had lived in Tell Tawil since 1935. His wife had died six years ago, four of his five sons had settled in Sweden, and his daughter lived in the U.S. Samuel, who is eighty, had known Abraham since he was a child and still appeared to respect his seniority. “I love this land,” Abraham said. “I’ll never leave it.” Samuel nodded in agreement.
After saying goodbye to Abraham and Samuel, I asked the S.D.F. fighter to show me his unit’s forwardmost position. We were heading down a hill to the northern edge of the village when I heard footsteps approaching from behind and turned to see Abraham briskly following us. At the end of the road, the S.D.F. fighter pointed to several sandbagged foxholes outside a gated property. He gestured toward the open expanse, strewn with old tractor parts, that stretched from where we stood: this was the no man’s land.
When Abraham caught up to us, he insisted that we come to his house for a cup of coffee. I asked where he lived.
“Here,” he said, opening the gate behind the foxholes.
Three huge dogs barked and jumped on Abraham as he led us into the yard. Pushing them away, Abraham complained to the S.D.F. fighter that someone had recently shot one of the dogs in the paw. We sat at a picnic table, on a deck looking out toward the Turkish front line. Abraham said that mortars sometimes whistled over his roof. He went inside and returned with whiskey tumblers containing espresso. Roosters crowed. After a while, Samuel appeared and, without a word, took a seat across from Abraham. Like almost everyone else from Tell Tawil, they were cotton farmers. Abraham owned a six-acre parcel across the road, but, even if peace came to Syria before he died, he knew that he’d never work it again. ISIS, the Turks, and the S.D.F. had all littered it with mines.
As we stood to leave, I asked Abraham what Tell Tawil had been like during the Second World War, when Britain and Vichy France fought for control of Syria. He said that his memories were vague. One, however, did stand out. He remembered lying flat in the fields, with other children, each time planes passed overhead. ♦